The United Nations will host dozens of governments, corporations and non-governmental organisations during a one-day Climate Summit in New York on September 23, but according to groups that will be protesting outside, the meeting will deal seriously with only one limited way of fighting climate change.
In recent years, the UN has proven incapable of playing an important role in slowing world climate change in any meaningful way, and is now strongly influenced by a powerful lobby.
“On the climate issue, the world’s biggest corporate polluters and pushers of unsustainable rates of consumption are hell bent on maintaining ‘business as usual’ and are working alone and in groups [and at the UN] to ensure that climate policies will not interfere with the profitability of their operations,” says a research paper by Canada’s highly-respected Polaris Institute.
Because the UN is not making much progress, as many as 200,000 environment supporters from all over North America are expected to take part in four days of protest in New York leading up to the UN Summit. More than 800 groups are backing the protests, hoping to advance the climate crisis cause in the eyes of the public and with governments.
While the summit and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will denounce global warming in general ways, it’s clear that, behind the scenes, corporations will play the leading role. The most powerful so-called climate-saving committee associated with the UN committee is loaded with representatives from the most powerful corporations from around the globe.
One of the few moments of real compassion during the summit will come when a 25-year-old poet, journalist and climate change activist from the Marshall Islands delivers the keynote opening address. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner will say she became inspired to fight climate change when she witnessed the raging ocean destroy her city’s main graveyard on her island.
“I was inspired by the concept that the ocean is almost eating, or swallowing our dead in a sense,” she said in an interview with a US donor. “There is profound sadness and a profound helplessness about that. It is so sad, we have no control over it; it is the ocean that is taking it over. That is what inspired me; that is what moved me deeply.”
The summit will, among other things, hold brief discussions on themes such as climate, health and jobs; a climate change photo contest the UN says may be the largest ever; and a week of climate conscious-building at events around New York.
However, what the corporations want most is to have the summit boost their preferred action against climate change: carbon pricing.
If corporations have to pay what amounts to a fine to pollute beyond certain set levels, they are inclined to cut pollution and to create new technologies that will reduce emissions.
“Carbon pricing is a critical tool to address climate change, and momentum is building to put in place carbon pricing schemes,” says one UN document. “Nearly 40 countries and more than 20 cities, states and provinces use carbon pricing mechanisms such as emissions trading systems and carbon taxes or are preparing to implement them.”
It wasn’t too many years ago that the once mighty cigarette industry was forced to greatly curtail its activities in many countries. And many more people are dying from climate change compared to deaths we saw from smoking.
However, too many corporations want to implement only carbon pricing mechanisms. But the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says: “A cap-and-trade programme alone would not be sufficient to meet the challenge of climate change.”
UCS says many other actions are needed that require a lot more action from business. Included are having utilities generate a higher percentage of their electricity from renewable energy, requiring automakers to increase vehicle fuel economy standards, stronger energy efficiency policies, and policies encouraging smart growth.
Civil society participation
While the UN will welcome powerful corporations in New York, it will strictly control the participation of NGOs. NGOs were not permitted to decide among themselves who will be allowed into the summit. Instead, the UN selected four civil society speakers and 34 additional civil society attendees from the 544 nominated groups.
Protesters launched their activities in New York on September 19 with plenaries, speak-outs and teach-ins. The main march, consisting of all kinds of people from children to seniors, will take place on September 21, several blocks away from the UN, on the other side of Manhattan Island. No doubt the march will be closely monitored by New York’s police force. Organisers say the demonstration will be the largest protest in the history of the environmental movement. Some organisers claim as many as 500,000 people will take part, but 200,000 – still a huge number – seems more realistic.
The more radical protesters will target what they call the “climate profiteers” on Wall Street on September 22, the day before the UN summit. Protesters can receive non-violent direct action training, and will hear pep talks from journalists/activists Canadian Naomi Klein and American Chris Hedges. If protesters are denied entry to the Wall Street district by police, then a violent confrontation is most likely to occur.
According to the organisers, large coordinated protests and the occupation of business districts are planned for hundreds of communities around the world.
The environmental movement has been trying to shame the UN and national governments into making more progress on slowing climate change for many years. However, earlier this month, the World Meteorological Organization voiced concerns over the surge of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, which reached a new record high in 2013. It said there are worrying signs that oceans and the biosphere seem unable to soak up emissions as quickly as they used to.
Perhaps it’s time for environmentalists and the general public to change tactics and begin focusing on the big corporate polluters. It wasn’t too many years ago that the once mighty cigarette industry was forced to greatly curtail its activities in many countries. And many more people are dying from climate change compared to deaths we saw from smoking.
Nick Fillmore, a former president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. He specialises in environmental issues.